In recent years, the indie video game world has been an incubator for some of the most innovative puzzle games. There’s a VR game that’s Tetris plus archery (Smush.tv). A Plinko game with D&D elements (Roundguard). Even a cooperative platformer about two dogs connected by a gelatinous midsection (PHOGS!). All were on display this year at the PAX West expo.
Since its inception in 2004, PAX West has been a fan-focused gaming expo catering to gamers of every stripe. Every Labor Day weekend, the show takes over Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center as well as large sections of many nearby hotel ballrooms.
Triple-A companies dominated most of the space with their new installments of Borderlands or Monster Hunter, but PAX always devotes ample sections of floorspace to independent games and this year was no exception.
I met David and Lisa in 2016 when they were at PAX hosting a panel about escape rooms. Respect for puzzle gamers at PAX runs deep. At this year’s expo, I went on a hunt for the best upcoming puzzle and adventure games that will pique the interest of escape room fans.
The first standout I found was The Devil’s Calculator by Cinq-Mars Media. This mobile game is likely to divide gamers into two camps at first blush: those who used their high school TI-85 calculator to craft functions that drew beautiful graphs, and those who used it to hide notes on the Pythagorean theorem.
The devil had possessed my calculator, swapping out the plus, minus, multiply, and divide functions with nefarious replacements. Sometimes keys were on fire – too hot to press. The only way to clear each level was to figure out how to make the display read “666”.
Christopher Jarvis, the game’s creator, described it as “a game of interpolation where you’re trying to solve for unknown operators.”
“I never took math past high school and I made all 70 base game levels,” Jarvis said. “95 percent of it is puzzle solving and lateral thinking.” This was good news to me as I definitely fell on the “hiding notes” side of TI-85 users.
The Devil’s Calculator is a non-profit game that is free for the first 20 levels, and totally free for educators and students. It’s out now on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Steam.
Another indie selection that impressed me was Deleveled from Toaster Fuel. Described to me by programmer Kyle Donnelly as “a physics-based puzzle-platformer with no jump button,” this was a game that was more easily understood when played. In fact, it’s best to watch this video right now:
I simultaneously controlled two squares on either side of a platforming level made of simple lines, attempting to move all the level’s switches to “on.” Sure enough, there was no jump button so I had to fall and cause my counterpart square to bounce, then conserve that momentum to navigate obstacles in search of my goal.
I was drawn in by Deleveled’s minimalistic design and intrigued by the mind-bending levels. Level Designer Patrick Nance promises smooth ramping to train new players and unexpected twists to hold their interest to the end. As a word nerd, I couldn’t help being delighted by the way their palindromic title echoed the concept of the game.
Deleveled is planned for Steam, Switch, Xbox, and PS4 by the end of 2019.
Both Deleveled and The Devil’s Calculator were selected for the PAX10, an honor bestowed upon 10 games each year by a PAX-selected committee of 50 industry experts.
The most visually striking game in the indie sections of PAX was Backbone by Egg Nut. I played raccoon private investigator Howard Lotor in a 2-D anthropomorphic-noir world. It was set in dystopian Vancouver, B.C., and the city was Blade Runner-beautiful. In the street scene featured in the demo, neon signs reflected off puddles in the street and steam rising out of the sewer was illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. This was all the more impressive because the game was pixel art in the vein of The Secret of Monkey Island.
Unlike that classic adventure game, the focus of Backbone was less on fetch-quests and more on navigating branching dialogue trees to solve a mystery. The demo started with me trying to bribe, persuade, and threaten my way into a jazz club. There were bears, foxes, and dogs inside that I needed to question. Once there, I made a sickening discovery and by the end of the demo my character was doubled over in an alley losing his lunch. Despite the anthropomorphism, this was decidedly adult subject matter.
While Backbone was chiefly an adventure game, Eggnut co-founder and writer Alex Korabelnikova assured me that team wasn’t neglecting the puzzle elements. The puzzle in the demo occurred in close-up view, where I rearranged pieces of paper with cut-out elements to get a door code.
“There is also going to be a mechanic of Smell-O-Vision, where you can track and trace smells to figure out the clues,” Korabelnikova said. “The dialogue itself is a puzzle, because you need to figure out the approach you need to take with each character, and you need to understand what different species signify inside the world and the stereotypes that surround them.”
This is an ambitious effort but it’s off to an excellent start. Definitely one to watch.
Backbone is slated for release on nearly all platforms in early 2021. The free demo is out now for PC for Steam.
I didn’t expect to get “the feels” exploring PAX West’s Indie Megabooth, but there was one game that got me. A Fold Apart from Lightning Rod Games explored a couple in a long distance relationship struggling with the space between them. I played by flipping, folding, unfolding, and rotating the paper that made up their environment. It was a puzzle game with a strong emphasis on narrative.
Steven Smith, co-founder of Lightning Rod games, said, “We deal with communication and miscommunication. So there will be texting back and forth, and someone will say something that brings up a sensitive subject. That will send the other person into an emotional world where they work through their feelings about it and solve puzzles.” Disagreements created emotional barriers that my character had to literally fold their way around to overcome.
As someone who is currently in a long distance relationship, I was definitely moved by the narrative. A nice text message (or the absence of a message) can turn your whole world upside down. The Pixaresque animation and gorgeous score further tweaked my thrumming heartstrings.
I was able to play any combination of two-person relationship between a man, a woman, and a non-binary character.
A Fold Apart will be available on Apple Arcade, Switch, and PC this Fall. Xbox, PS4, Mac, and Android soon after. It was recently featured in an Apple Arcade promo, so it must have Tim Apple’s seal of approval!
Cool REM House
Superliminal by Pillow Castle drew influence from such mind-bending puzzlers as Portal, The Stanley Parable, and The Witness. It was a first-person experience set in a sleep institute. My character had come in for a new dream therapy meant to provide more restful sleep. However, when I woke up, there was no one there. Was I still dreaming?
In this world, perception became reality. When I lined up disjointed pieces of a painted cube, it became three-dimensional. Small objects became large when I dropped them from above me. Items refracted through distorted glass took on new properties. I was able to navigate the facility through the transformation of these items, blowing my own mind a couple times in the process.
Art Director Steve Allen described the look of Superliminal as “interesting mundanity.” Allen said, “At first it’s not too overarchingly surreal, but it just has that sort of glimmer of too much symmetry, too much color, and that clues the player that something interesting is going on in that area.” While the demo only covered the rather tame opening area of the game, the trailer hinted that it takes a dark turn as you uncover more about the seemingly mundane building.
As the most room escape-adjacent game I found at PAX West this year, this will be one that puzzle fans will want to keep an eye out for.
Superliminal will be coming out by the end of 2019. It will be an exclusive on the Epic Games Store for PC, then a year later on Steam.